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story.lead_photo.caption Crowds gather Saturday evening in the Boxley Valley in the hopes of viewing grazing elk. Authorities say outdoor tourism has increased in recent years, causing traffic congestion and parking problems. - Photo by Mike Fagan

Authorities in Northwest Arkansas reported increased traffic congestion and illegal parking problems over the weekend as nice weather and fall colors drew a greater number of visitors to the area.

Newton County Sheriff-elect Glenn Wheeler said he could not quantify the increase but added that the department has gradually noticed a surge over the last few years. "The roads and highways were substantially busier than normal," he said. "It's not a typical small-town problem. It was crazy for our little community."

The most prominent problem area was along Cave Mountain Road near the Hawksbill Crag trailhead in Devil's Den State Park, Wheeler said. Cars parked along both sides of the road slowed the passage for residents and patrol units, with one deputy reporting that it took 40 minutes to travel along a stretch of road that typically took less than five minutes.

The road was also impassable for big trucks, tractors or emergency vehicles -- such as ambulances and fire trucks. Wheeler said authorities encountered a similar problem last year when a hiker was injured on the trail. An ambulance was stopped a few miles outside the trailhead, which delayed providing care to the victim, he said. As a result, red parking signs that notified vehicles obstructing the road that they would be ticketed or towed were installed in the area. However, the problem persists. Five Newton County deputies responded to the area, along with law enforcement officers from other agencies. Deputies issued 15 citations to the most egregious violators who blocked the road in ways that caused the most dangerous problems.

"They didn't just write tickets to everyone who had parked up there -- just the ones that were literally creating a public hazard and blocking emergency vehicle access," Wheeler said.

Another problem area was Arkansas 43 between Boxley and Ponca, where crowds stopped in the road to view elk herds that came out to graze.

"In the Smokey Mountains, they have bear jams, but here in Arkansas, we have elk jams" Wheeler said. "It was gridlock at times. You don't think of Ponca when you think of gridlock."

The National Park Service assigned officers to direct traffic in the Boxley Valley and remove vehicles that had parked in yards and on other private property, the sheriff said.

Wheeler said that while the county encourages tourists to visit, they need to respect local residents and everyone's safety.

"We love our part of the world and don't want to discourage people from coming to visit," Wheeler said. "In fact, visitors are a very important part of this county's economy, but we also want to make sure that our residents, and the many visitors that come here, have access to help should they need it in an emergency. "Even if it is a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, it is still a public road that can't be blocked. People still live here and want to be able to get home or to where they are going without issues."

NW News on 11/08/2018

Print Headline: Crowds viewing fall foliage cause problems in Northwest Arkansas

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